Book review: W. Rostow – The Dynamics of Soviet Society

Groningen, a.d. VI Non. Mai. MMDCCLXXII A.U.C.,

This 246 pages long book gives a short introduction to the (dys)functioning of Soviet society up and to 1952, as seen from the viewpoint of the American historian Rostow in 1954. Peculiarly, he was not an expert on this topic, he wrote the book based on conversations and discussions with experts on the Soviet Union and based on their work.

The main theme of the book is that Soviet policy had been driven by the maxim to maximise power for the ruler. Individuals and practices incompatible with this goal have been abolished and eradicated. In this way, much of Marxist ideology has been replaced with Leninism and Stalinism, and individuals who supported more classical Marxism have first been removed from powerful positions and later have been executed or exiled during the Great Purge. Marxist practices have survived insofar they have been useful to achieve the goal of maximum power.

Major examples of the clash between Marxist practice and power maximalisation occur both in domestic as well as foreign policy. In domestic policy the emergence of the totalitarian Soviet state is an obvious contradiction with classical Marxism. The latter holds that societies naturally move from one stage of history to the next. Feudal agricultural societies turn into bourgeois, capitalist industrial societies, which in turn will reform into socialist paradises. How this last step would occur, and what the policies of a government should be to initiate this last phase of history, Marx was completely unclear about. However, once capitalism was overthrown, the state would whither as it would no longer be necessary. Moreover, Marx did not oppose governmental accountability and transparency, rather, the government should be taken out of the hands of the bourgeois and be made accountable to the workers.

Meanwhile, the Russian revolutionaries of the late 19th and early 20th century faced a situation in which they first had to fight the autocratic Czarist regime and then had to industrialise Russia. Nothing about this was automatic, in fact, it required Lenin’s famous and highly disciplined vanguard of the proletariat to implement all this. This sense of loyalty to the leader of the party and of being the leaders of society never left the Bolsheviks.

Economically speaking, the party took on itself the task to industrialise Russia. After all, Marxism predicted that industrialised societies would turn into socialist paradises. While Russia had industrialised quickly between the late 1880’s and the First World War, it was nowhere near the level of industrialisation of countries like Germany or the USA. Forced industrialisation, in combination with the maintenance of a massive army, required the suppression of consumption by Soviet citizens. Of course, this was not a very popular strategy, requiring further suppression of discontent. Forced industrialisation also required quick urbanisation and the supply of cheap food towards the cities. To achieve this, the Soviet government collectivized land. This was a highly unpopular policy amongst farmers, who had hoped the revolution would lead to a permanent more equal distribution of private land. Similarly, the creation of a state-run economy required that the government decided on production quota. To achieve the production set by the government, workers control of the factory they worked in was suppressed. Industrialisation also required the abandoning of equality of unskilled and skilled workers and of productive and non-productive workers. Rather than a society of total equality, attempts at a meritocracy were introduced (of course thwarted by Soviet bureaucracy at the longer term).

In foreign policy a similar opportunism to secure power can be discerned. Rather than immediately aiming to launch a worldwide revolution, the Soviet state has aimed to safely establish itself within Russia. Even after victory in the 2nd World War, the Soviet state has made few rash decisions to launch worldwide revolution in an all-or-nothing gamble. Rather, Soviet foreign policy resembled the behaviour of any superpower aiming to maximise its influence. For instance, the communist parties in Western Europe under its control have mostly served conventional goals of foreign policy, like making alliances more likely or incapacitating rivals. They were never allowed to actually pursue policies aimed at maximising the chance of revolution in Western Europe.

To achieve total dominance of Soviet society, the Bolsheviks behaved highly aggressively against their erstwhile allies in the struggle against the Czar. The Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries, who, regardless of their economic differences, agreed that Russia should become a liberal democracy, were exterminated. This while the Bolsheviks only won around 25% of the vote in Russia’s first ever free elections. Critique of the Bolsheviks became impossible through the construction of a surveillance state. The communist party became an organisation in which power hungry men had an advantage over their softer rivals. This culminated in the Great Purge of the 1930’s, in which Stalin wiped out millions of people and sent millions more to concentration camps (the ‘Gulag archipelago’), to solidify his power over the party. Only in this way the economic policies of forced industrialisation and collectivization could be executed.

The Gulag archipelago. Each dot represents a concentration camp. Source:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gulag_Location_Map.svg

Since this book was written, many things have changed in Russia of course. Yet there are surprisingly many insights into events happening much later. To start, the Orthodox church and xenophobic nationalism have both been used to tie subjects to the government. Especially the constant warning of dangerous foes abroad has been a strong tool to legitimise high military spending and a surveillance state. It has the side effect that Russia can never be at permanent peace with its neighbours and other superpowers. To survive, Russian autocrats habitually invoke an external enemy, and this ‘foreign enemy’ will feel threatened because of this. The response by this foreign entity will in turn spook the Russian government. This leads to constant tension.

“Only when the Soviet regime is prepared to make its peace with the Soviet peoples is it likely to make its peace with the world.”

Rostow was also quite perceptive with regards to the factors which led to the demise of the Soviet Union. He argued it would require a split within the Soviet elite (this turned out to be between Gorbachev and his allies vs hardliners, and afterwards between Yeltsin in his drive to obtain a power base in Russia vs Gorbachev as leader of the entire Soviet Union). This split would make it impossible to crack down on protesters, and would lead politicians to obtain support from the people (this turned out to be Yeltsin defending glasnost during the coup against Gorbachev). Subsequently, several groups might simultaneously protest in favour of constitutional change, including different ethnic groups, intellectuals and workers (again exactly what happened).

Lastly, Rostow also describes how the goal of propaganda is not necessarily to convince people of anything in particular. Its main goal is political apathy: subjects must not know what is true anymore, so they also do not know what to change. A big difference with then is that nowadays it is much harder to limit information from abroad. This has only increased the importance of disinformation tactics to bread apathy, something in which Putin is an absolute master. Nevertheless, back then it was also obvious that Soviet policies did not lead to high living standards. People knew they did not own large apartments and cars, so propaganda was ineffective in convincing them of this. Political apathy was, thus, bred more easily than widespread political support. Consequently, the surveillance state was never abolished.

All in all, this is a very enjoyable book, well written, probably nowhere on sale anymore, and still useful to gain insight into Soviet society back then, but also Russian society in how it is influenced by its past and by the same structural factors which still apply.

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